“Legalism” and “Phariseeism” — Evangelicals Convenient Excuses for Sin, False Doctrine and Practice
Updated: Jun 18
The world of “Evangelicalism” today is loaded to the brim with scoffers and scorners who walk after their own lusts and then throw out accusatory invectives like “legalist” and “Pharisee” when someone actually does strictly obey what the Bible teaches down to the jot and tittle. But they are sadly blind to the fact they are actually describing themselves, and like the Pharisees, do not keep or teach even the least of Gods commandments.
In recent times in communication with such among the Mennonites, the clarion call was “extreme legalism” when God’s Word was applied and strictly obeyed. The man, like the typical evangelical, drew his own standards but not at Gods Word. Not only did he corrupt godly music but he also corrupted the meaning of words. God is One. His Word is One. The meaning is perspicuous. It's plain. Like God the Son said in Pr 8:8-9,
“They [God’s words] are all plain to him that understandeth, and right to them that find knowledge.”
We do not have a linguistic excuse with ordinary meaning of the language of scripture. Calling obedience to God out of love for Him and desiring to fulfill His will as His workman (as we read in Jn 14:15-24; 1 Jn 2:3-5, 29; Eph 2:10) - “legalism,” is to corrupt the meaning of that word, and similarly “Phariseeism.” They are used as blunt instruments, weaponized to protect a belief or lifestyle through castigation. People that do this, want to eliminate the objects of their scorn.
Is it True Though? Are Their Targets really Pharisees and Legalists?
Evangelicals like to label who is a “Pharisee” or “legalist.” Not them, of course. Usually it's someone who has different standards than they do. Ironically, it’s evangelicals with the low standards, the worldly lifestyles, the disobedience to Gods Word, that are the actual legalists. They are left-winged legalists, producing a left-winged society, the very cause of the downfall of our nations as we note today. Jesus said that the world hates believers because they are not of this world (Jn 17:14-16). They don't fit into the system. The lasciviousness of the left winged legalists is the lowering of standards to fit into the system, and CCM music is only one of many examples of this. They don't have to be hated that way. They're still “Christians," and yet they lower the standards to conform to the world. Those who don't lower their standards, they call legalists. Peter the apostle warns of those that are “unlearned and unstable wrest, as they do also the other scriptures, unto their own destruction.” (2 Pet 3:16). Peter then warns the truly born again, “beware lest ye also, being led away with the error of the wicked, fall from your own stedfastness.” (v. 17).
When someone does what he does out of love, because He is a son, because he has intimacy for the Father, he isn't looking to reduce or lower. He wants to increase. He wants it to be better. That's how it looks. He is being “led by the Spirit of God” because he is a “son of God.” (Rom 8:14). And that is directly connected to the Spirit “bearing witness with our spirit, that we are the children of God” (Rom 8:16). When actions are internally motivated and empowered by the Spirit, they will be loving God, which is striving for more and more obedience, conforming more and more “to the image of his Son” (Rom 8:29). Love for God and obedience to Him are never divorced (e.g. Jn 14:23-24; 1 Jn 2:3-5). Nor is the true grace of God divorced from obedience, righteousness, holiness and godliness (Ti 2:11-14).
“Evangelicals” (or anyone else guilty of this abuse and heresy, which include fundamentalists) should worry about what the Bible says, rather than scoff at the truth and scorn the one speaking truth, like the Pharisees did in John 8, to which Christ responds in vv. 43-47, rhetorically asking, “Why do ye not understand my speech? even because ye cannot hear my word” (v. 43) and “He that is of God heareth God's words: ye therefore hear them not, because ye are not of God.” (v. 47). The reason for the dullness of hearing is simple — they are yet of their father the devil (v. 44). What I write isn’t difficult to grasp for the truly saved and thus wise saint of God, nor is it contrary to Scripture. It lines up precisely but these heretics are confounded and perplexed by the truth, “scoffers walking after their own lusts.” (2 Pet 3:3). With their scoffing and scorning attitude they are intentionally turning people away from faith in Gods Word, and to such Paul the Apostle sharply rebuked,
“And said, O full of all subtilty and all mischief, thou child of the devil, thou enemy of all righteousness, wilt thou not cease to pervert the right ways of the Lord?” (Ac 13:10).
Abusing Matthew 5:20 to Fit Their Perversion
The Lord Jesus confronted Pharisaism and legalism with His Sermon on the on Mount in Matt 5-7. The sermon explains salvation and the evidence thereof, but in a unique way to cast down the corrupt view of the Pharisees, the religion of the day. Their teaching was so prevalent everywhere, what Jesus then preached was also dealing with the thinking of everyone in His audience. Even if He wasn't preaching to Pharisees, He was preaching to Pharisaism and legalism.
The charge of “Phariseeism” and “Legalism” is so common today, it seems perhaps to be the normal verbiage of the “evangelicals” language. Trying to strictly obey Gods Word, Gods laws, dictates, commands and decrees, is coined as “Phariseeism” and “Legalism” by modern evangelicals. This strictness apparently produces people who are self-righteous and trying to impress people with their righteousness by being stricter than others. Labels such as “holier than thou” are tossed around like salad being mixed in a salad turning bowl. Of course the convenient excuse must be “supported” by scripture, and so in comes Matt 5:20:
“For I say unto you, That except your righteousness shall exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, ye shall in no case enter into the kingdom of heaven.”
The false labels are convenient excuses to make room for sin, false doctrine or false practice. The erroneous argument that they make goes something like this. ‘The Pharisees were super righteous people. They were fastidious at keeping the law, since they were experts and so into the law. They were self righteous people. And those that try to keep God’s commandments in a strict manner, are the Pharisees of today. They try to keep the laws of God and are very strict. This strictness is Pharisaical, and it produces people who are self-righteous and are trying to impress people with their righteousness by being stricter than others.’
This representation of the “righteousness of the Pharisees” doesn’t fit the context in the sermon of Jesus. Jesus wasn’t talking about how super righteous the Pharisees were, but how poor their righteousness was. It’s a false “righteousness,” of the kind we see in Lk 5:31-32 for instance (“I came not to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance”) and other places such as Ezk 33. That is also noted in the preceding and the proceeding context of Jesus’ sermon in Matt 5. I contend that evangelicals use this false interpretation of the sermon to attack both keeping the law and strict keeping of the law.
A misrepresentation of Jesus, that He wishes to disabuse His audience, was that He, as a teacher, was trying to destroy the law. Jesus says in v. 17:
“Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfil.”
We see just the opposite. What Jesus came to preach didn’t result in people not being righteous. They couldn’t and wouldn’t be righteous the Pharisee way. The Pharisees were the ones diminishing the law, not Jesus, and Jesus illustrates that in the post context of vv. 21 to 48. The standard remained God and not the Pharisees, as Jesus ends the chapter in verse 48. There is irony here. This is actually one of the things that exposes the “evangelical” heresy: their standards are not God’s standards but man’s standards, a similar form of false religion. They compare themselves among themselves, but not to God’s Word, though they vehemently claim the “Bible” as their sole authority. It’s faux.
As Jesus described His position on not destroying the law, He talked about the perpetuity of every jot and tittle (v. 18) and that the greatest in His kingdom kept and taught the most of His commandments (v. 19). The salvation that Jesus taught would produce righteous people. They could and would keep the law — and more than that.
Jesus first illustrates His position by giving several examples of the application of “Thou shalt not kill.” His audience had been taught that a particular law or standard of righteousness and if they were at the Pharisee level, they wouldn’t still be keeping the law like Jesus taught that it should be kept. Because of that, they weren’t being righteous. If Jesus’ audience hated people in their heart, they were guilty of murder before God. If they said certain hateful things, they were committing murder.
Pharisaical righteousness was designed around something less than law keeping. They didn’t really keep the Sabbath, didn’t really not murder, and didn’t really not commit adultery. They didn’t really love God or their neighbour. The Pharisees concocted means of appearing to keep the law or just keeping their own minimization of the law, what we might call today a deconstruction of the law. With the Pharisees, you could keep the law without actually keeping it. Jesus pointed this out again and again. This fits into most religious groups as know them in our present world.
Those who go “about to establish their own righteousness” (Rom 10:1-3) almost always do one or more of the following three things (1) lower the standard, (2) reduce the standard to externals, or (3) compare themselves with others. Jesus didn’t lower the standard at all. He showed that the standard was exceedingly high (Matt 5:48), and that the scribes and Pharisees had done all three of the above.
But the Pharisees didn't recognize their spiritual poverty, so they didn't mourn. “Spiritually rich” people don't need to mourn because they're already full of “righteousness.” As a result, they're not submissive to God. They don't need God to inherit the earth. They've got that one covered by themselves and through their own efforts. Mercy is so weighty, so hard, that it's nearly impossible for an impression of righteousness, not actual righteousness. Mercy also isn't showy. It's like what James talks about, visiting widows and the fatherless in their affliction. That doesn't get the same publicity like Pharisaical religion, which depends on being noticed. Pharisees have a pure look, except when no one is looking. They're not pure in heart but hypocrites, what Paul addresses in Rom 2 and Jesus in Matt 23. Pharisees don't have real peace, so they can't be peacemakers. Peacemakers require peace with God themselves. Ignoring sin and error won't bring peace. Peace doesn't come from toleration of sin. Trying to be good and preaching that to others will leave them still as an enemy of God.
Pharisaism doesn't retard corruption like salt. It hides its light to avoid persecution. Daniel prophesied the hardship brought on by the Roman government. It wouldn't and it didn't occur because of righteousness, but because of sin. Israel wasn't suffering for righteousness. Individual Jews weren't being persecuted by the Romans. Followers of God, who would be followers of His Son, Jesus Christ, which are those who “live godly in Christ Jesus” (2 Tim 3:12), will be persecuted for righteousness' sake. The Pharisees reduced God's law to something they could keep on their own. They did not keep the least of God's commandments, neither did they teach men to do so. Instead, they ranked the commandments and eliminated the ones that are hard to believe and obey. They eliminated them because they required something more than what they had, and that is the supernatural new birth. They couldn’t keep them because to keep them required to be actually saved, actually born again, which would result in it not being grievous to keep God’s commandments (1 Jn 5:1-3). Because they abolished God's instructions, they added their own as a replacement. To do everything God wants, someone must first repent and trust God. In other words, his house must be built on the rock, who is Jesus Christ, and not the sand, which is their own efforts. The actual keeping of everything God says, in order to please Him, is what God wants. But you won't and can’t do that if you aren’t born again, if you aren’t justified, which happens at one moment in time, through repentant faith in Jesus Christ.
You don’t have the righteousness of God when you have that of the Pharisees. You weren’t actually keeping the law, when you were a Pharisee. There is an irony to the false interpretation. It is Pharisaical. It purposefully diminishes the law and therefore diminishes the righteousness of God. What I’m saying also fits into what the Apostle Paul said that they did in Rom 10:3:
“For they being ignorant of God’s righteousness, and going about to establish their own righteousness, have not submitted themselves unto the righteousness of God.”
The righteousness of justification by faith produces a righteousness greater than what the Pharisees believed and lived. It would look like the righteousness of God, because it was a righteousness of the power of God. This was having your house built on the rock of Jesus Christ and not the sand of the Pharisees (Matt 7:24-27), like the very vast majority of “evangelicals” have done, somewhere in my estimation in the ballpark of 99%.
The false charge of “Phariseeism” in fact mostly stems from a hatred towards what God has said and His demand of obedience. Thats the entire problem. A spiritual problem right at the very root. Its false professing “believers” that make the charge because they rebelliously refuse to obey God’s Word. Of course they can’t because they are unsaved, but they also won’t. Thats the entire issue. They are rebels that reject Christ’s Lordship and thus refuse to obey the gospel which means to truly repent and believe, to fully surrender to Jesus Christ as Lord, which is required for conversion (see here). They don’t like a boss over them, and most times that same attitude can be seen in their earthly relationships as well, including when someone uses Scripture to disprove and reprove their error.
Pharisees came to Jesus not so that they could keep God's laws, but to reduce them. Most of evangelicalism fits that description and most of evangelicalism labels “Pharisees” and “legalists” those who do not fit that description. They who do and teach the least of the commandments are called Pharisees. Those who break them and teach others to do so are the Pharisees. And Pharisees are ALWAYS unsaved people.
That is you Mr. or Mrs. “Evangelical” if you are reading here. Stop pretending. Stop deceiving yourself. God is not mocked. Truly repent and believe. Read How A Sinner Can Be Saved and Have Eternal Life